The IPA is an alphabet developed by linguists to precisely represent the sounds in all human languages. Look it up on Wikipedia, and go to the sections on consonants and vowels. You will see a huge number of symbols, laid out in a grid-like chart for the consonants and a beaker-shaped chart for the vowels.
- The words on the left-hand side of the consonant chart refer to how the sounds are produced, and those on the top of the chart refer to where in your mouth they are produced. So the symbol “θ”, the sound spelled “th” in the English word “thing”, is a dental (pronounced with the tongue against the back of the teeth) fricative (the air flow is not stopped when you make the sound, but is constricted).
- The vowel chart is actually a very abstract diagram of your mouth. The vowels at the top-left, like “i” (pronounced like the vowel sound spelled “ea” in “meat”), are pronounced with the tongue bunched up high in the front of your mouth. Pronounce the words “meat” or “me”, which both contain this vowel, and you be able to notice this.
Using Wikipedia to Understand the IPA
The terminology associated with the IPA can seem intimidating, almost like learning another language on top of the one you are already working on, but you can easily understand the distinct ways in which your language’s sounds are pronounced by going to the language’s Wikipedia article.
In the article, instead of the overwhelming full IPA chart, you can find just the set of IPA symbols that describe the sounds in your language. You also don’t need to memorize the names for the IPA symbols, since Wikipedia has descriptions of them and recordings of them being pronounced. To find your language’s sounds written in IPA:
- Go to the language’s page on Wikipedia.
- Go the section titled “Phonology”.
- There will be a table that lays out the sounds of the language in an organized chart in the form of IPA symbols. You can click on any of the individual sounds and go to a page which is a description of how they are made in the mouth. The pages for each individual sound also include audio recordings.
- NOTE: If the individual symbols aren’t linked to their Wikipedia pages, you can copy and paste them into the Wikipedia search bar and find them. Every IPA symbol has its own Wikipedia page.
- NOTE: The IPA symbols may not correspond exactly with the standard Roman letters used to represent your language’s sounds. Thankfully, the Wikipedia page will usually also have a link to a page that describe how the sounds in the chart match up with the script, or a section of the main article that does the same.
Using IPA with Non-Roman Scripts
You may be learning a language with a different script from the one we use in English. Thankfully, the articles for those scripts will show the IPA symbols that correspond to the individual letters. To find the sounds associated with your language’s script in IPA:
- Go to the Wikipedia page of the script associated with your language.
- You will find somewhere on the page a table, or sentence-long descriptions of the sounds of the letters with IPA symbols. As with the phonetic chart above, you can click on the symbols and they will take you to pages describing how to make the sound with your mouth and containing audio samples.
EXPLORE FURTHER: Gabriel Wyner has fantastic videos about IPA on his website Fluent Forever. You can see the multiple videos he made at the following link: https://fluent-forever.com/chapter3/. He works through the different IPA charts for vowels and consonants, describes the way the sounds are made, and pronounces most of the sounds on the chart as examples. You might find this especially helpful if you are more of a visual or aural learner.